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The Point: The Crisis Afflicting Africana Studies at UMB


Note: This week’s column was guest written by Professors Cuf Ferguson (Psychology & Human Services) and Tim Sieber (Anthropology)

This semester, UMB’s Africana Studies Department has been engulfed in an administratively-imposed crisis situation threatening its very existence and autonomy as an academic unit.  Our purpose in writing to you, the FSU membership, is to help everyone better understand the urgency of this situation and the need for faculty more widely to rally in support of our Africana Studies colleagues.  How Africana Studies and their needs are being treated today is unjust and a threat to faculty rights everywhere and to whatever is left of our supposed campus ideal of “shared governance.” 

We urge you, our colleagues, not to see Africana Studies as an “outlier” situation, but instead as emblematic of the current systemic dysfunction at UMB—something that hurts all of us.  It’s especially ironic, for example, that a central administration that professes to be guiding UMB toward becoming a “leading anti-racist and health-promoting” institution is knowingly or unknowingly treating Africana Studies with arguably unjust and total disrespect.  Similar dynamics are also at work with the now empty, unstaffed Trotter Institute.  What is being called a transition committee supposedly is to be used as an “unofficial holder” for the Institute.  This dramatic situation has been noticed, as well, in the community, in a recent front-page article published in the April 21, 2022 edition of the Bay State Banner, noting the contradictions of a purportedly “anti-racist” university that also is denying adequate resources to UMB’s two signature units advancing discourse on issues affecting the Black community. 

Africana Studies (initially known as Black Studies) was created at UMB during the era when Black Studies nationally was being born.  The UMB Department will reach its 50th anniversary during the next academic year in 2023.  As with our pioneering Women’s Studies Program, as an accessible urban public university, we had Black Studies on campus and available to students long before most other Boston area universities—all private—ever did.  Department faculty soon defined the broad Pan-African world as its subject matter, building a curriculum examining the entire African Diaspora, and supporting our Black students’ efforts in the historically white space of the academy to give thoughtful interrogation and appreciation to their identities as young Black people, aware of their heritage, and as activists for racial justice, prepared for wider civic leadership.  Students have long been eloquent—at public events, on teaching evaluations, and elsewhere—in praising the department’s support for their efforts to develop in these directions. Of course, in ethnic studies programs everywhere, it’s widely documented that faculty of color typically have to assume these additional weighty responsibilities in student mentoring.

Similarly, faculty in ethnic studies programs like Africana Studies are also expected to take leadership in community engagements in wider civic life, and to guide our students as new leaders and activists in these arenas.  UMB’s Africana Studies faculty have fulfilled that expectation—they have taken on important leadership roles in community affairs here in Boston, sponsored many community-engaged partnerships, on matters such as Black men’s health, technology, innovation, and community-led policy research, and created study abroad programs throughout the Pan African world—in Ghana, Benin, Ivory Coast, Cape Verde, Haiti, Cuba, and Jamaica.  In all these outreach efforts, they have patiently guided our students through pathways to “Glocal” civic leadership in their own right. Africana Studies on our campus has never received full recognition of their performance of its extra duties, in addition to what we consider standard faculty responsibilities.

So, what is the present crisis?  For many reasons, including administrative dismissals, resignations and retirements, Africana Studies has recently lost many faculty members and is now down to 1.5 FTE tenured lines. In the most recent days, gifted and dedicated NTT faculty have been striving to sustain the department’s teaching and community mission under the most difficult circumstances. But the scarcity of tenure-faculty in Africana Studies has made it clear that more permanent tenured lines are also needed to give core stability to the program. For this reason, two new TT searches in Leadership Studies and in Black Literature were authorized for hiring for next year, and a search team assembled to carry out the search.

This past year an interdepartmental committee was formed for Africana Studies to carry out the searches, with only one half-time faculty member from the department. The rest of the personnel was drawn from Psychology, Human Services, Philosophy, Economics and Anthropology. Three of us were Black identified, all from outside of Africana Studies. We were a broadly-based CLA committee, committed to fulfilling our important charge.

We received a large number of applications, over 50, and after reviewing them, invited 12 semi-finalists for preliminary on-line interviews, and after that review, recommended bringing seven applicants to campus for full-scale vetting as finalists for these positions.  We had an impressive pool of talented finalists, all showing great interest in joining UMB and contributing to furthering our campus mission.  Per protocol, decisions about final ranking or submitting the slate of candidates unranked were to be made after the full-scale vetting of the finalists.

For reasons that have never been fully explained, our search process was abruptly cancelled by the CLA Dean, presumably in concert with the Provost’s wishes, given his recently revealed plan for Africana Studies and the Trotter Institute.  To date, no reasons have ever been explained to members of our committee. We were told we did not “follow directions.” However, we followed our customary UMB procedures in such searches.  Members of our search committee collectively have over 100 years of UMB faculty experience in these matters, three of us have been department chairs, and one a dean, and we are completely dedicated to rebuilding our academic capacity in Africana Studies, an ever more important subject area for us in these times.  Throughout, we were quite conscientious about doing the search correctly, led by the hard work of our very competent chair.

No clear reason that we could understand was ever given to us for why the administration cancelled the search.  Two letters that we sent to them requesting they explain their reasons and sit down with us to work out a mutually acceptable way of proceeding—especially given all the work we have done, and our outstanding candidate pool—also received no response.  As faculty from inside and outside of the department, we honestly found this unexplained treatment baffling, insulting to our integrity, and deeply disrespectful toward our good will and hard work.  We think it is always important to evince fundamental respect for the faculty’s thoughtful and committed contributions to campus governance, which is especially essential in the area of faculty recruitment and selection (see See Article 3.1 of the “Redbook” for elaboration of this).

Finally, the latest wrinkle in this story, as alluded to above, is that we have learned through the department that the Provost’s office has informed Africana Studies that upper administration has arranged for an outside law firm to come and do an assessment of the department and the Trotter Institute before committing any resources.  The reason for defining why this is a necessity before our search process can continue has not been explained, and it makes even more mysterious the agendas behind the administration’s intentions here.  We do not think that the current search process and the Provost office’s assessment plan should be positioned as an either/or proposition.  Given the urgency of now, we think it more prudent to adopt a both/and stance if the Provost’s office insists on doing an assessment.  If the current search process is halted, it would be the second time that such a search would have been cancelled without good reason.  While we do not want to speculate, there seem to be other systemic issues at play which dishonors all our work, including Africana Studies’ half century of responsible presence on campus fulfilling its unique and multi-faceted mission.

As faculty we should all be concerned with this chain of arbitrary actions taken by the administration, without any meaningful consultation with Africana Studies or the network of allied faculty—such as those of us on the search committee—committed to supporting the department.  Attention to process does matter, as the failure to do so ultimately impacts perceptions and feelings.

We urge you, our colleagues, to take an interest in this situation, and register your concern wherever possible with the administration about the knowingly or unknowingly unjust precedents these administrative actions represent for faculty rights, and for the inconsistency they display in thoughtfully building community solidarity around the goal of making UMB a “leading anti-racist and health promoting university.”

Once again, if the administration is truly serious about doing anti-racism work it is imperative, beyond rhetoric, for them to support and work with the many vibrant grassroots faculty and wider campus anti-racism initiatives and struggles that we actually have here, and to honor those who have been in the trenches on this issue for decades—like the faculty in our Africana Studies department.


Cuf Ferguson and Tim Sieber

This is your union: please let us know at what ideas you have about supporting our colleagues in Africana Studies. And please come to the joint FSU/Faculty Council meeting this Thursday at 1 p.m.


Jeffrey Melnick (

American Studies Department

Communications Director, Faculty Staff Union Executive Committee

For information on the FSU, links to our contract and bargaining updates, and a calendar of events, see the FSU webpage